they are intrusive. They are an interruption to someone’s day and tolerance for those interruptions differ from one person to the next. While some people welcome a steady stream of alerts from their favorite news brand, others don’t. Some get annoyed if they feel they’re getting too many alerts. Some assume that opting in to alerts means opting in to breaking news and nothing else. Some are adamant that sports events aren’t worthy of an alert. Some really don’t like receiving alerts that aren’t about news. One solution to this is personalization. Many of the smartest people working with push — Greg Emerson at The Wall Street Journal, Eric Bishop at The New York Times, Sasha Koren from the Guardian U.S. Mobile Innovation Lab, to name just three — stress the importance of putting the audience first. Giving them the power to control what they want, how they want it, when they want it. Personalized push alerts are a vital way of achieving that on mobile. Of course, personalized push alerts isn’t a new concept by any means. Some outlets are doing it and doing it well. But it is an area that is woefully under-utilized. Over half of the 31 apps included in my recent study of push alerts offered just one, all-or-nothing alert option, usually characterized as breaking news. This includes some major players, such as The Washington Post, Bloomberg, and Fox News. Alerts from the BBC Worldwide app can only be turned on or off in the phone’s system settings. Above (L-R): All-or-nothing alert options in the Bloomberg, Fox News and BBC Worldwide iOS apps. A mobile editor based at a major, global outlet whose app alerts don’t offer any degree of customization told me that personalization was, “something we desperately want and are begging our product counterparts to build.” News outlets working within these confines face real challenges. They are forced to either (a) limit themselves to major breaking news, missing a vital opportunity to develop stronger ties with users that would like more alerts, or (b) push a wider variety of content via their one, catch-all channel, risking the wrath of users who thought they were only signing up for breaking news alerts. Both options are undesirable. The former will force some audiences to look elsewhere. The latter will cause intense irritation to some audience members, damaging their perception of the brand and possibly leading them to disable alerts or remove the app entirely. Personalized push alerts benefit both the audience and the news outlet. On the audience side, they solve a problem for users at every end of the spectrum. Those that think they get too many alerts, or only want to hear about big breaking news events, can alter their settings to cover the bare minimum. The news hounds that want to know everything can opt it to as many as they desire. News outlets benefit because they get to put their best content (and sometimes that’s just a really well-crafted alert) in front of the audience that most wants it. When audiences opt in to specific, non-breaking channels, it’s a clear signal that they are hungry for alerts about that topic. This provides scope to be more aggressive, more expansive, and more creative, providing a valuable opportunity to cement a tight relationship with some of their loyal and engaged users. The really smart outlets will build an element of nuance into their customization options. Take Bleacher Report’s (excellent) alerts, for example. Their bread and butter is to provide sports news and scores (sometimes containing video of the action) for your favorites sports teams. But they built in an additional switch that allows their users to avoid spoilers — a lovely option for those days when you’ve DVR-ed the game and want to watch it unspoiled, as-live, at a later date. Quartz has something similar with its option to filter out alerts about Donald Trump. None of this is easy. Deciding how to personalize, and what categories to include, is not a straightforward task. Building the product and on-boarding users is challenging, too. The absence of a feedback mechanism makes it hard to pinpoint exactly what audiences want. But it’s important not to ask too much of them. It’s questionable whether anyone wants to sift through 50-100 personalization options, for example. Above (L-R): Customization options in the CNN MoneyStream and Dallas Morning News iOS apps. The lack of high quality data doesn’t help, and what data there is often doesn’t capture what newsrooms really want to know: whether their audience values and appreciates the alert. The lack of a tap doesn’t necessarily translate to a lack of appreciation. Personalization is not straightforward. But it’s absolutely worth it — and news outlets know it. Those that do it well will reap the rewards.
Pete Brown is a senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia.